Before going deep into describing the glories and details of Demons, let it be said right off the bat (1) just how incredibly fun this film is, and (2) that its greatness has nothing to do with Lamberto Bava. There's a frivolity, joy and quasi-anarchy to Demons that was missing in a lot of Italian Horror since the overnight success of The Bird with the Crystal Plummage 15 years prior. That landmark in giallo ushered in a more adult-themed era within the Italian Horror industry, with the majority of films in the 1970s having less to do with evil, revenge, greed or fate, and more to do with psychological and sexual aberrations, and trauma, in particular of the Freudian kind. This is neither good nor bad, and there are certainly exceptions (Suspiria, Zombie), but even when Argento enters the world of the supernatural, he finds it difficult to let go completely of the psychological tether, going so far as to refer to the head witch of Suspiria, Helena Markos being not just an embodiment of evil, but mentally unhinged, insane. Demons, produced and co-written by Argento, is a return to not just a more pure form of Horror, but also of entertainment.
Demons is directed by Lamberto Bava, the son of Mario, who had spent the first 15 years of his time in the industry (1965-1980) being an assistant director and screenwriter for not just his father, but for Argento and Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust, Jungle Holocaust). Nothing L. Bava did up to Demons, or after for that matter, appeals to me very much. As is the case with Armando Crispino's Autopsy, I love Demons for what it is as a whole – the parts that make it up don't warrant as much individual, intellectual dissection as many of the other great Italian Horror films do. There's an interesting, if not fascinating, argument here that if one has a pristine script (Argento, Franco Ferrini, Dardano Sacchetti) and an excellent helmsman/producer (again Argento), then perhaps a director of optimal powers isn't necessary to pull off a superior piece of work.
The plot of Demons is a delightful one indeed and will appeal to the legion of Zombie Film fans out in the world, although as with more contemporary films like 28 Days Later these aren't the living dead, or even the 'infected'. Instead they are exactly as the title of the film states – demons.
The film begins with a music-major university student, Cheryl, riding the Berlin subway. The opening credits roll as she, and us, take a gander at the other occupants of the subway car – this firmly places the film in the 1980s, as the car is full of all the New Wave and punk rock denizens one comes to expect from a lot of Euro-horror at this time. Handed a free ticket for a new movie by a mute man in a metallic demon mask, Cheryl convinces her friend Kathy to go with her. Once at the movie theatre (named the Metrol), which is full of patrons who also received mysterious tickets, Cheryl and Kathy find some cute boys to sit with. In the lobby of the theatre, I should mention, is a sculpture that has hanging from it the same demon mask from before. One of the patrons, a fierce Apollonia 6-inspired hooker named Rosemary, teases her pimp by putting the mask to her face to try and scare him. Unfortunately for her, but fortunately for us, the inside of the mask cuts her face and causes her to bleed. At this point, anyone with even the slightest semblance of knowledge of Horror films, and Italian Horror in particular (see Black Sunday) knows that Rosemary has just become patient zero for something truly abyssal.
Within 10 minutes (during which time the movie within the movie has already started, a movie that involves a gaggle of teens coming across a decrepit ruin, a ruin which has the same demon mask buried in a shallow pit) Rosemary feels ill and has to excuse herself to the ladies room (she has a meeting
with Satan!) Where the mask cut her face, Rosemary now has a large pustule, pregnant with demonic semen. Within moments it bursts forth, and the now hellishly infected Rosemary carries the Devil's contagion inside her. Soon, several more become infected (via a scratch or bite from Rosemary), and the theatre is eventually crawling with rabid demons. Meanwhile, one of the characters in the movie playing on the Metrol screen has also cut himself on the mask, and becomes infected with demon juice – the meta- fiction runs wild in this film.
By Demons' climax, most of the patrons are Satan's converts (save Cheryl and her boy-toy), including some truly crazy young punks who entered the theatre by the back way. Without giving away the ending completely, let's just say that mankind's future doesn't look too bright in Demons.
What sets this film apart is the quick pace, the truly horrific and terrifying special effects (including a particular demon-birth involving someone on all fours that still freaks me out to this day), the legitimate scares, the velocity of the demons themselves, the phantasmagorical lighting and ambiance, the heavy metal score (Saxon and Accept being the highlights), and one of my personal favorites in a horror film – the notion of apocalypse. In this way its influence is still with us to this day. But more than anything Demons is a truly wild, wild ride, and one of the most purely shocking films of its time.
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